Studying for finals is a daunting task for most students, so I’d like to offer some simple strategies to help.
Obviously, what you study and the techniques you use will vary class by class. There are, however, some strategies that transcend individual subjects. I recently posted a list of the do’s and don’ts of effective studying, and these, of course, apply here as well.
One simple rule to keep in mind is …
Study Early and Often
Cramming is never recommended, but you can survive little quizzes and even some tests with frantic, last-minute studying. Comprehensive finals and AP exams are much less forgiving. Cramming won’t work. In order to succeed, you have to start early and study often.
You have to study early and often for two reasons. One is simply that there’s so much information to cover. It takes a great deal of time and effort to review an entire year’s worth of content. The other reason is that studying early and often is the best way to tap into the power of spaced repetition. This is true for all types of quizzes and test, but it’s especially true for finals.
That means you need to find out as soon as possible if there is a final and what will be on it. Is it comprehensive for the whole year? Or this semester? Or is it just a unit test? The sooner you know, the sooner you can get to work.
So ask your teachers about finals early. Now would be a good time. Seriously. Email your teachers right now. Or make a note to yourself to ask in school tomorrow. Do it.
That said, you don’t have to wait until your teacher tells you about the test to start studying. It’s safest to assume that there is a comprehensive final and begin studying right away. If finals prove to be unpleasantly challenging this year, you might decide to add a program of consistent review into your study routine next year, starting in the fall. There’s no such thing as too early. Imagine how much less stressful finals would be if you did small reviews all year long.
Using the Study Guide
If there’s a study guide, make a photocopy of it, so you can use it later as a practice test. Then complete one copy of it as thoroughly as possible, as soon as possible. Check your answers and correct your mistakes.
Use resources – notes, your textbook, the internet, your classmates, etc. – to figure out what you don’t know. Mark the topics that you don’t understand, write down the questions you have, and go see the teacher to get help.
The sooner you start, the more time you’ll have to get help.
Make it a Ritual
If you can automate your review through a daily ritual, you’ll make steady progress. This can mean putting in 10 minutes per day whether you feel like it or not.
I recommend doing this before you do homework because homework will drain your willpower muscle. Also, since it’s due tomorrow and comes with an immediate consequence if you don’t complete it, you’re likely to get the homework done anyway, so study first. Do your “shoulds” before your “have-tos.”
Building a ritual of this kind is difficult, so I’ll offer one quick strategy: Track your effort with a calendar chain.
Print off a calendar that shows all the days until school is out and start X-ing off the days you study. A calendar chain should be specific to a single goal for a single class, and a specific minimum daily dose should be written on the top. You can always do more than the minimum, but you’ll be more likely to engage it consistently if the bar is set low.
Every time you put an X on the calendar, you’re giving yourself a little pat on the back for putting in the effort. If you miss a day, that’s fine. You are human, after all. Just get back to work the next day.
Here’s an example of a study calendar, in progress in early May, being used to prep for a comprehensive math final:
The Whole Year?
Going back through the content for an entire year is a gigantic task, so let’s strategize about how to approach it.
Regardless of which resources you use to review the content, the most important idea is that your review should not be passively reading. Instead, it should be actively writing. Typically, the more paper you use while studying, the better you do on the exam.
If you’re operating out of a textbook, then you may have the luxury of going through chapter summaries. Start at the beginning and take notes on the big ideas. If there is a set of vocabulary for each chapter, build a set of flashcards. For a math or science class, there will most likely be practice problems you can work through to solidify your understanding.
If you’ve got a collection of old handouts or your own notes, go through and re-write them. Condense your old handouts and notes into a smaller set of notes on the most important ideas.
One way to go back through the whole year in a casual and automated way is to watch Crash Course videos. Crash Course is a nonprofit YouTube channel that has entertaining educational videos on many high school subjects including World History, US History, US Government, Economics, Biology, and Chemistry. You could make it a ritual to watch one or two of their videos each day while you’re eating breakfast.
Now, watching Crash Course isn’t true studying. But watching Crash Course is better than not studying at all, and it makes an excellent supplement to true studying because it provides visual and verbal reminders of the content you’ve looked at more deeply in class or in your textbook. Plus, if you’re trading out television for Crash Course, or if you’re adding it to your breakfast routine – when you would otherwise not be studying – then it’s not taking away any time that would have been used for true studying.
Also, you can choose to engage with Crash Course in a manner that’s closer to actual studying by having pencil and paper at the ready. Bear in mind that the pace of the videos is very fast, so you’ll have to pause them frequently to take notes.
There are more serious academic resources on YouTube, such as Adam Norris’ AP US History videos. These walk you through the content in a very dry and straightforward manner. If you’re taking notes as you watch, and if you follow up on a session of watching with a practice test, then you’re actually studying.
Focus on Filling Your Knowledge Gaps
Over the course of a year, everyone misses at least some of the content that was covered. While a good finals review ought to include all of the content, it’s important to focus on the major gaps in your knowledge. One quick way to see where your gaps are is to review your online grades and simply look for low test grades. The tests you did poorly on are surely good areas to focus on.
If your teacher was kind enough to hand back your exams – and if you were wise enough to hold on to them – you can go back through your old tests and quizzes and focus your efforts on the specific questions you got wrong. Merely looking over the material isn’t enough; it’s important to use pencil and paper to write about the material or re-do the problems you missed.
For nearly any math subject, Khan Academy is an excellent resource to use for filling in a gap in your knowledge. Search for the concept you need help with, watch the videos, take notes, and then try the practice problems. For most types of math problems available on Khan Academy, you’ll want to work them out on paper rather than attempting to do them in your head or using the “scratchpad” tool. Khan Academy also has videos on Biology, Chemistry, and Physics.
For an online resource to review Spanish grammar and vocabulary, I recommend StudySpanish.com, which has both lessons and quizzes. The “basic quiz” for each lesson is free and will pop up in the left-hand column of the screen.
The quickest way to find out if you’re prepared is to take a practice test. It’s also the fastest way to discover gaps in your knowledge.
It’s better to fail a practice test at home and find that you need to study than to fail the real test at school and wish you had studied.
Practice tests and worksheets that can serve as practice tests abound online. If you can’t find one, ask your teacher for one. If your teacher can’t provide one, make one yourself.
A very popular tool for self-testing is Quizlet, a website that lets you make electronic flashcards and test yourself in a variety of ways. Quizlet has many nice features, and it does help with studying, but students should keep in mind that hand-written notes, hand-made flashcards, and pencil-and-paper self-tests are far more effective than any electronic study tools.1 If you are going to use Quizlet, consider at least incorporating the following tactic: Have a pencil and paper at the ready to write out anything you get wrong. The same rule applies to quizzes on StudySpanish.com.
Use Downtime Wisely
When you’re trying to internalize a great deal of information, it’s critical to make the most of your downtime. The gaps between study sessions are when your subconscious brain does the important work of solidifying your memories and piecing together the academic puzzles you’ve been wrestling with.1
But you can’t access this innate superpower if you’re filling your downtime with screen-time. Television, games, and social media are so powerfully engaging that they prevent your brain from processing whatever you’ve been working on learning.
So you’ll have to resist the urge to fill your downtime with technology and, instead, take real breaks. This means practicing the art of taking microbreaks and embracing moments of boredom. It means going for walks, taking naps, and meditating rather than watching shows, using twitter, and texting.
And lastly, you’ll never feel like studying, so whether or not you want to study has nothing to do with it. Just start. Your future self will thank you for it.
Chris Loper has been working as a tutor and academic coach since 2014, racking up over 10,000 hours of experience supporting students.
Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
Chris’s most recent endeavor combines his academic and habit-formation expertise to help students thrive in college. Visit SmartCollegeHabits.com to learn more.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.
1 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.
Title Image: gutermuth, anna. “5/365.” https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 2.0. Text added.